Climate Change and Boots on the Ground: A New Frontier for Humanitarian Intervention?

Image source: Department of Defense. U.S. Marines and Nepalese soldiers unload tarps off of a UH-1Y Venom helicopter at Orang, Nepal, during Operation Sahayogi Haat, May 2015.

Climate change is now at the forefront of the Pentagon’s priorities. So far, the U.S. military’s mission on climate change mitigation has focused on cleaning up and developing a climate-resistant military force and finding ways to secure their most vulnerable installations. In its most recent Climate Change Strategy, the Army details a step-by-step plan to reorganize its forces to mitigate the effects of climate change. These plans are inherently inward-looking and focused on tackling climate change by restructuring training, logistics, acquisitions, and readiness; the rules of engagement for the U.S. military and the strategic use of force against climate change remain unclear. However, this inward focus does not account for the relief missions the U.S. military carries out in the event of a natural disaster. As climate change fuels humanitarian crisis worldwide, the U.S. military should put climate disasters at the top of its agenda. As the connection between climate change and conflict grows stronger, so do the odds of the U.S. military returning to an era of humanitarian intervention. 

Over the past thirty years, the United States has employed military means to fulfill humanitarian missions several times. From Bosnia to Syria, the military has been deployed to humanitarian missions during bloody civil wars and savage conflicts that deprived people of their fundamental rights and needs. While most of these interventions seemed successful in the immediate aftermath, the success of these missions is now debated. For instance, the 1994 U.S.-led intervention in Haiti, codenamed Operation Uphold Democracy, successfully overthrew the military regime that had taken power in 1991, but this did not provide lasting stability. Today, a concerning pattern in Haiti’s recurring crisis is the connection between political instability and natural disasters that have frequently plagued the small country and put unbearable pressure on its fragile institutions. Only ten years after this UN-sponsored intervention, Haiti went through another coup d’état which preceded a series of deadly tropical storms and a devastating earthquake that shook the nation into a downward spiral of political instability. After each disaster, Haiti received an overwhelming outpour of temporary humanitarian aid, yet stability is still amiss. Will the next natural disaster push Haiti over the brink of conflict and bring U.S. boots back to Port-au-Prince? 

The connection between natural disasters and political instability also exists outside Haiti:  the effects of climate change disproportionately affect war-torn, developing communities with unstable governance in key regions like the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, and Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, recent estimates report that Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change. After twenty years of a U.S.-led war and a failed political reconstruction, climate change impacts, including, droughts, floods, and avalanches inflict the final blow to a country with few prospects of stability under the new Taliban government. After 20 years of conflict, the NATO humanitarian mission and responsibility-to-protect efforts in Afghanistan have failed. Despite efforts and roughly $1 trillion in U.S. military and reconstruction investments, the development and reconstruction efforts did not establish a resilient government or build the necessary infrastructure to help the Afghans cope with the effects of climate change. This is perhaps the greatest strategic blur of the United States’ mission in Afghanistan: failure to structure a stable government opened the door for immaterial threats like climate change to take a firmer hold. The U.S. government should learn from this blunder so as not to repeat the same mistake in other contexts. Although military force is always an option against humanitarian threats, the U.S. should tailor military goals to reachable political objectives. While U.S. policy so far has been to make the military greener and readier to fight in extreme environments, it has yet to come up with a clear-cut mission that would employ all U.S. national resources against climate change as a transnational threat. As a well-funded element of U.S. national power, the Department of Defense will need to find its role in the American strategy against climate change. 

Considering the Afghanistan debacle and the uncertain outcomes of recent humanitarian interventions, it is hard to imagine the United States putting any boots on the ground. At the political level, in particular, humanitarian intervention has developed a close association with failure and harm, which undermines the moral justification for the use of force in humanitarian crises. This avoidance is understandable. In 2000, Michael O’Hanlon described the impossibility of determining how long military forces should have stayed in a war-torn country to restore peace. Twenty years later, however, the necessity for an exit strategy is no longer up for debate. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resources spent in the humanitarian restoration of these countries have sealed the fate of open-terms humanitarian interventions, which have now become a controversial use of military force. More importantly, humanitarian interventions have delivered a mixed record for the United States that managed to quash ISIL but failed to stabilize Libya after the 2011 intervention. This mixed record against terrorist groups and rogue actors does not bode well for providing military solutions for immaterial threats like climate change, even when violent non-state actors exploit it to drive their actions. For instance, the Islamic State (IS) turned water into a powerful weapon of political blackmail, recruitment, and legitimacy during the Syrian Civil War. Similarly, water could increasingly become a source of contention in climate-sensitive areas like the Euphrates and Tigris basin or the Nile Dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt. 

Unfortunately, the United States seems to have no answers on how to deal with climate-related humanitarian crises and what the mission for the military should be. However, even when climate change provides the United States with the chance to recover its leading role in the international community, it struggles to muster the political will to lead the fight against climate change. The United States has been absent from most climate-related international conferences, returning to the table of international negotiations only last year during the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. The meeting was also the stage for President Biden to announce the new American initiatives to tackle climate change. While this is an unprecedented pledge for an American president, it mirrors a new direction for American strategic interests and investments. Yet, once again, the most significant actions against climate change look inward, as the Inflation Reduction Act shows. As the United States reorients its energetic production and consumption, its economic interests follow suit. The unspoken rule of international relations is that money goes where interests are, and these claims are at the forefront of the funding of military force. Can the U.S. military be part of the American strategy for becoming a climate-centric great power? Maybe, but the White House must consider great power competition and the race for resources, and their role in ramping up the cyclic grasp of violence, resource depletion, and displacement in environmentally fragile countries. 

The American comeback to climate-related talks has mirrored the interest of China. With the presence of the two most polluting countries in the world (the U.S. and China), COP27 identified climate change as a new source of competition, not cooperation. Despite the first signals suggesting a new era for U.S.-China relations, the complexity of the challenge clashed with the reality of international relations. Still classified as a developing nation, China has readily pointed to Western responsibilities for carbon emissions and climate disasters in developing countries. By ‘standing with developing countries,’ China has reestablished its position as a prospective leader for states in the most environmentally fragile areas of the world where historic U.S.-led humanitarian interventions, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, have checkered the reputation of the United States as a reputable leader. On top of China’s political commitment, its recent financial fingerprint  in infrastructural investment across the globe has been a market-maker for clean energy, setting the bar high for the United States and its new pledges. 

However, if great power competition is ramping up the financial contest to establish the economic leader of a new greener global economy, the U.S. military’s clean-up initiative could soon throw military force in the mix. The most recent National Defense Authorization Act requires the Pentagon to go oil-free by 2035, pushing for an all-electric force. This complete revolution in military technology and equipment could have significant consequences on the defense industry, the worst polluter in the world. However, as critics have pointed out, most resources that fuel electric batteries are processed in China. In this respect, the U.S. defense industry has yet to demonstrate the ability to gather and employ the raw materials needed for producing high-quality green technology without relying on external actors. With China seeking to consolidate its advantage in the rare earth metals market, it will be hard for the United States to pick up the disadvantage accumulated over the years. 

Additionally, extracting methods of these minerals risk worsening their delicate environment, but new opportunities for supply and mining reside in African countries, where the effects of climate change are already putting a strain on populations and at-risk countries. While there is significant potential for African countries to replace China as the source of rare earth minerals, the possibility of a new resource competition brings back nightmares to a continent that has been a historical target for resource exploitation among great powers. This potential new scramble for African-based resources builds on a fragile and at-risk territory where climate change is already increasing the prospect of conflict and instability. This intersection between conflict and resource competition could revitalize the initiative for humanitarian interventions to salvage and protect populations in areas where great powers seek to establish dominance over resources. In this respect, climate change could fuel a never-ending cycle of disaster, political instability, resource competition, and war that could easily spill over into a new controversial campaign of military interventions. After all, if a humanitarian intervention derives from the moral imperative of more powerful countries to protect the most vulnerable, the most culpable countries for global emissions and climate change should also be responsible for protecting the victims of their climate exploitation from related consequences, including conflict. This old rhyme should prompt a thorough reflection in the United States which cannot afford another decade of resource-consuming humanitarian interventions, especially if it wants to preserve its global leadership. 

However, it is hard to see how the United States will protect its renewed financial commitment against climate change in the face of Chinese competition. Ultimately, the intersection between climate-driven interventions and resource competition could lead the United States towards policies for which the military is ill-equipped to implement. The adaptive measures that the military is taking to fight in climate-challenging environments only look at operational and tactical preparedness. A strategy equipped to fight only the symptoms of climate change—rather than its causes—will only make humanitarian interventions more likely.

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